Steelband musicians may suffer hearing loss

After years of entertaining crowds during annual Carnival festivals and other celebrations in the Caribbean and elsewhere, steelpan players are likely to experience hearing loss, a new report shows.

“Specifically, this study implies that if you are a steelpan player, and you do not wear hearing protection, you are at risk of getting a noise-induced hearing loss with time,” study author Dr. Solaiman Juman, from the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, Trinidad, told AMN Health.

“The steelpan is a wonderful instrument, but the exponents of this art need to be protected by wearing some form of ear protection to prevent a hearing loss,” Juman said, adding that “rock and roll bands, symphony orchestras and even choir singers are at risk of suffering the same problems.”

The steelpan, an instrument invented by enterprising musicians on the West Indian island of Trinidad, consists of the base of a steel drum that may have previously been used for industrial purposes, such as transporting oil. The drum is converted into an instrument after being heated and hammered in various places, with each demarcation corresponding to a different musical tone. ]

Recognized as the only instrument invented in the twentieth century, the steelpan has delighted crowds of music lovers from the backyards of Trinidad to the stages of world-renowned concert halls. It is also one of the main attractions during the Carnival season in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, as musicians compete in “Panorama” competitions to be recognized as the best steelpan players in the country.

To prepare for the competition, musicians participate in up to eight-hour rehearsal sessions each day for approximately three months. Some musicians also perform in steelbands, or steelpan “orchestras” year-round. At the core of the band, the noise level is comparable to that sustained by someone standing two to four feet from the center of a rock and roll band.

Juman and his colleagues assessed the impact of long-term exposure to such high sound intensities in a study of 29 steelpan players and a comparison group of 30 men and women with no steelpan experience.

They found that steel pan players had more hearing loss than those in the comparison group, they report in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. And, the study findings indicate, hearing loss was greatest among those with the most years of experience.

For example, while all seven of the steelpan players with less than 10 years of experience had normal hearing, the same was true of only three of the 12 musicians with more than 20 years of experience.

“Prevention of hearing loss among musicians continues to be an elusive goal,” Juman and his team write. At issue is the fact that many are reluctant to use ear protectors, which by dampening sound levels may hinder musicians from closely monitoring and appreciating slight differences in musical tones.

Of particular concern to the researchers is the younger generation of steelpan players, some of whom begin playing as early as 10 years old, the report indicates.

“We earnestly hope that a happy medium can be attained that would allow free expression of the considerable talents of these youths while protecting the sense organ that is fundamental to their achievements,” the authors write.

Various advances in filtering techniques and research into chemical substances that may protect against hearing loss may one day prove helpful, but there may also be some basic steps that can be taken now to guard against later hearing problems among steelpan players, according to Juman and his team.

“Simple strategies such as break periods during practice and playing on alternate days might substantially reduce the risks,” they write.

SOURCE: Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, October 2004.

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Tatiana Kuznetsova, D.M.D.